February 29, 2012
The February 8, 1952 Delta Democrat-Times (Greenville, MS) ran a piece from Henry C. Nicholas titled “Cheer Up! World Will Be Wonderful Fifty Years From Now!” Nicholas reports on the International Congress of Astronautics in London and the convention of the American Chemical Society in New York, saying that the predictions described in the article are not those of imaginative writers of science fiction, but rather the “sober conclusions of our greatest scientists, including many of our most famous Nobel laureates.”
This style of laying out fantastical advances of the future and proclaiming that they represent the conservative opinion of incredibly smart people is one of the most popular formulas of non-fiction futurism writing, dating back at least to John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. and his article for the December, 1900 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years.” And this 1952 article is a terrific example of the techno-utopian thinking that so many people today consider the Golden Age of Futurism.
There will not be another world war during this century. The next 50 years will witness an amazing increase in wealth and prosperity, with a continuous rise in the world standard of living. The threat of world overpopulation will disappear with ample space for everyone, thus removing one of the long existing causes for wars and revolutions.
By the year 2000 cures for most of the diseases of man will have been discovered. The average age will be about 100 years. Journeys through space in rocket ships will be an established form of transportation, with regularly scheduled trips to the various planets. A number of man-made moons will be circling around the earth.
The article quotes Dr. James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard University, about the future of atomic war. Interestingly, the article claims that atomic energy will have proved a failure, making way for solar energy as an “inexhaustible source of new power.” This hope for the future of solar power actually wasn’t a new idea, as similar predictions were made during WWII about the prevalence of solar power after the war (should the world continue to exist at all).
An atomic world war was averted in the 1950s, though by the “narrowest of margins,” according to Dr. James Bryant Conant, world famous chemist and president of Harvard.
The Communist world and its opponents, which then controlled most of the world, became somewhat mellowed by “time and local conditions” and the startling new revelations of the mysteries of the universe.
Atomic energy had been a disappointment, both as a destructive weapon of war and its constructive peacetime development. In the 1970s atomic energy was replaced by solar energy as an inexhaustible source of new power.
With this development, which was fully established by 1985, the world at last realized its age-old dream of lifting most of its labor from the backs of man.
Dr. Adolph Butenandt of Germany and other Nobel laureates from Sweden, Finland, England, France and America, were in agreement with Dr. Conant that solar energy would revolutionize the world through supplying man with an inexhaustible and previously largely untapped source of cheap power.
The amount of such cheap power available to the world in the year 2000 will be beyond comprehension. The amount of sunshine energy, which yearly falls on only a few acres of land, when converted into man-made power was sufficient to supply enough electricity for a city of a million inhabitants.
The article also quotes Artturi Virtanen, a 1945 Nobel Prize recipient in chemistry. According to the piece, in the year 2000 the sea will be explored and exploited for its untapped resources, and the world’s food supply will increase 50 times over.
Fifty years from now the world will be able to increase its food supply 50 times over. This increased production will come largely from enhancing the efficiency with which plants use sunlight to make sugar from water and carbon dioxide.
Fishing will not be the only crop obtained from the sea. There is more wealth in any square mile of the sea than there is in any square mile of land.
With the abundant and almost costless power of solar energy it will be possible to mine the minerals and harvest the green growth that teems in the ocean. Fresh water will be obtained from the ocean and great deserts that are near the sea, like the Sahara in Africa, will become garden spots.
Birth control is seen as the answer to the world’s population crisis, as the article predicts that religious leaders will become more comfortable with the idea of birth control.
There will be no danger of world overpopulation. The size of families and nations will be regulated at will. The world population will controlled through improved birth control methods, with cheap, harmless and temporarily effective anti-fertility compounds added as one saw fit to the diet. This will remove one of the greatest dangers to world peace since the dawn of civilization.
The attitude of religious leaders regarding birth control, say these scientists, will slowly change “without any diminution of religious feeling.”
There was general agreement among the scientist gazing into their crystal balls that space travel will be an established means of transportation well before the year 2000.
Dr. Wernher von Braun, who was the chief developer of the V-2 rocket for Hitler and who is now working on guided missiles for the United States, said that most of the problems of space navigation will have been solved during the 1950s.
The first step toward true space navigation were earth moons — man-made satellites high in the earth’s atmosphere. Persons stationed on these earth moons continuously circulating around the world, will be able to observe and report any unusual activity that threatens peace on earth.
Supported against the earth’s gravitational pull by the centrifugal force of its rapid motion, only moderate power will be needed to launch space ships from these satellites which possess no atmosphere.
While the world will be changed beyond recognition in the year 2000, say these scientists, man will remain much the strange and unpredictable creature he is today. There will still be many bemoaning the passing of the “good old days.”
(The 1955 illustration above by Frank R. Paul was found in the wonderful book Driving Through Futures Past by the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, CA.)
January 25, 2012
As I noted last week, the term “wireless telephone” in the early 1920s didn’t necessarily mean a device that could both transmit and receive messages. In fact, most radio devices during this time were simply either a transmitter or a receiver. However, some inventors were having a lot of fun tinkering with what was essentially walkie-talkie technology, in that they were developing transceivers — devices that could both transmit and receive radio messages. An article in the March 21, 1920 Sandusky Register in Sandusky, Ohio retold the story of a man in Philadelphia named W. W. Macfarlane who was experimenting with his own “wireless telephone.” With a chauffeur driving him as he sat in the back seat of his moving car he amazed a reporter from The Electrical Experimenter magazine by talking to Mrs. Macfarlane, who sat in their garage 500 yards down the road.
A man with a box slung over his shoulder and holding in one hand three pieces of stove pipe placed side by side on a board climbed into an automobile on East Country Road, Elkins Park, Pa.
As he settled in the machine he picked up a telephone transmitter, set on a short handle, and said:
“We are going to run down the road. Can you hear me?”
Other passengers in the automobile, all wearing telephone receivers, heard a woman’s voice answering: “Yes, perfectly. Where are you?”
By this time the machine was several hundred yards down the road and the voice in the garage was distinctly heard.
This was one of the incidents in the first demonstration of the portable wireless telephone outfit invented by W. W. Macfarlane, of Philadelphia, as described by the Electrical Experimenter.
Mrs. Macfarlane, sitting in the garage back of the Macfarlane home, was talking through the wireless telephone to her husband, seated comfortably in a moving automobile 500 yards away.
The occupants of the car were a chauffeur, a reporter and a photographer. All wore the telephone receivers and could hear everything Mrs Macfarlane was saying. The chauffeur had no other apparatus than the receiver with the usual telephone cord attached to a metal clip to his steering wheel.
Lying beside Mr. Macfarlane was the foot-square box, the only “secret” in the whole demonstration. What is in the box is the inventor’s mystery. This box weighs about twelve pounds. The other machinery used consisted only of the usual telephone transmitter and receivers and the three pieces of stove pipe standing erect on a plain piece of board. This forms the aerial of the apparatus.
As the article notes, this story was first reported in an issue of Hugo Gernsback’s magazine The Electrical Experimenter. Gernsback was an important popular figure in the development of radio and in 1909 opened the world’s first store specializing in radios at 69 West Broadway in New York. The reporter from the Experimenter asked Macfarlane if his device, which he said cost about $15 to make (about $160 adjusted for inflation), had any practical uses in the future. Macfarlane instead looks backward and wonders how it might have shaped World War I, which ended less than two years before.
“If this could have been ready for us in the war, think of the value it would have had. A whole regiment equipped with the telephone receivers, with only their rifles as aerials, could advance a mile and each would be instantly in touch with the commanding officer. No runners would be needed. There could be no such thing as a ‘lost battallion.’”
January 6, 2012
The first known case of aircraft being used in police work was in 1919, when famed Canadian aviator Wilfrid Reid May flew a detective in pursuit of a dangerous fugitive from Edmonton to Edson (landing in a town street). In the decades since, law enforcement aviation units have utilized planes, helicopters, blimps and, most recently, unmanned aerial drones.
Notably absent from that list are heavily-armed flying gondolas. But that’s precisely the idea presented in the February, 1936 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics. An article by editor Hugo Gernsback–considered by many to be the father of modern science fiction– predicted that, as long as police officers were stuck on terra firma, the mobsters always would have the edge:
The automobile, as a quick get-away instrument in crime, has assumed vast proportions during the past decade. Notorious gangsters and their henchmen are always using high-powered automobiles and, unfortunately, they are often able to outwit local police and state troopers after the crime has been engineered. Very frequently, the license number and a good description of the car is obtained by the police but, as a rule, so much time is lost in distributing such information from Police Headquarters that the criminals can make a clean getaway. Usually, the crime car is abandoned a little later, after the gangsters have changed to another.
Gernsback, who was a pioneer in the field of radio and helped to popularize the word “television” in the United States (he’s sometimes mistakenly credited with coining the word), couldn’t help but mention the advances short-wave radio had made in assisting police of the era. However, Gernsback acknowledged that more than just better communication would be needed to stop the gangsters of the future. Our noble author is also sure to mention that the gondola is “streamlined,” a popular design choice for the 1930s, when even humans were determined to be outfitted for the fast and aerodynamic future.
It is true that short-wave radio, in connection with police cars, has been able to decrease crime somewhat; but this is true mostly in large cities. Once the fleeing gangsters take to the rural highways, it is usually impossible for the police to overtake them.
A means is here proposed to enable the police to move quickly about, and apprehend, criminals, via airplane. A number of municipalities now have airplanes, and most of them are being equipped with police radio. But it is one thing to notify an airplane that a car is heading in a certain direction on the highway, and another to stop the car by airplane. The reason for this is that the modern airplane cannot come too close to the ground and, even if it did, it could do so for only a very brief space of time, measured in seconds. Suppose we have instead a police plane equipped with a separate gondola, which is streamlined, and which can be lowered from the plane by a steel cable. By means of the plane’s engines, the gondola can be lowered or raised quite rapidly, while the plane can fly from 300 to 400 feet above the ground. The gondola, which swings free, except as it is supported by the steel cable, can assume a partially independent motion of its own, because it has a rudder and elevators to steer it, like a glider. It can, therefore, independent of the airplane, veer to the right or the left, and even turn about in the opposite direction, should this be necessary. The mobility of the gondola is, therefore, greater than that of the plane.
December 16, 2011
After President Eisenhower pushed legislation in 1956 that would radically expand the U.S. highway system, artists began to imagine which technologies might shape our highway-rich future. These weren’t your father’s superhighways of tomorrow. These were highways built for self-driving cars; highways stretching from Alaska to Russia; highways running through the bottom of the sea.
The August 3, 1958 edition of Arthur Radebaugh‘s Sunday comic “Closer Than We Think” envisioned highways built by gigantic machines. These machines would roll along the untouched land, clearing a path with a tree crushing mechanism in front, and pour concrete out its rear, leaving a perfect highway in its wake. The text accompanying the comic explained:
Tomorrow’s turnpikes will “flow” out of giant machines like magic ribbons across the countryside. The basic equipment is already in existence; only a few improvements are needed.
The forward section of such a road-builder would be a variant of the new jungle-smashing LeTourneau “tree-crusher” combined with a grader. The middle section would pour concrete in a never-ending flow, with the rear portion leveling the still soft pavement. A line of freighter helicopters would be on hand to feed the behemoth with the material necessary to keep it moving across any type of country.
Where did old Art get such a silly idea? Radebaugh was likely inspired by an episode of Disneyland* which aired just a few months earlier. Magic Highway, U.S.A. was originally broadcast on ABC on May 14, 1958 and depicted the glorious future of hovercars and automation that exemplify mid-century, techno-utopian futurism. The episode also showed various automatic highway builders, including the one below. The narrator explains that “in one sweep a giant road builder changes ground into a wide finished highway.”
Hosted by Walt Disney, narrated by Marvin Miller (Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet), and directed by Ward Kimball, Magic Highway, U.S.A. is a perfect artifact of the era, with a heavy emphasis on the family car. Watching the episode today, it amazes me that the episode wasn’t broadcast in color until July 29, 1962. The incredibly lush color palette of the animated sequences are truly what make the episode so stunning and may explain why TV critics gave it terrible reviews when it first aired, describing the future as “hideous if Disney artists have their way.”
*People are often confused when I refer to Disneyland as a TV program. From 1954 until the fall of 1958, ABC aired Walt Disney’s TV program Disneyland, which would change names many times over the years. In the fall of 1958 Disneyland would become Walt Disney Presents, then Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in the 1960s, The Wonderful World of Disney throughout the 1970s, and maybe half a dozen more iterations throughout the 1980s, 90s and 2000s. The name I remember from my childhood was The Magical World of Disney, which was the title when Michael Eisner was hosting the show from 1988 until 1996.
October 25, 2011
The mid-1950s was a revolutionary time for the American driver. The Federal Freeway Highway Act of 1956 would radically alter the American landscape with the largest public works projects the country had ever seen. President Eisenhower’s expansion of freeways criss-crossing the country inspired a lot of Americans to think about what the future of transportation might look like. It was an era of drive-ins, tailfins and Googie architecture.
The September, 1955 issue of Reading Automobile Club Magazine – a magazine from the town of Reading, Pennsylvania associated with AAA – included an article by Michael Frome titled, “A Travel Editor Speculates: If Today Were 1965!”
The piece mentions some staples of futurism from the time, such as the four-day work week, which would allow citizens to take full advantage of the benefits resulting from greater mobility:
While the four-day work week is not yet universal, most citizens enjoy the pleasures of added three-day weekends during the year. These extra days, as well as monthlong vacations, are used in the pursuit of our studies, hobbies and travels — and often all three are indulged at the same time.
On the one hand, there is a tremendous outgoing of travelers to other continents, but, on the other, the national parks are being visitied this year by 75,000,000 persons and the national forests by an equally heavy volume.
Frome also quotes Robert F. Kohr, director of Ford’s engineering staff about the future of the automobile:
“Today’s developments, no matter how advanced,” [Kohr] said then, “will be antiquated by 1965 — though that is just a little too far in the future for any accurate prediction.
“The passenger car engine probably will be lighter, smaller and more compact. It should have greater combustion efficiency, higher compression ratios and improved ignition. If some of today’s knotty metallurgical problems are solved, a gas turbine power plant, weighing roughly half as much as the reciprocating engine, may be used.
“Tomorrow’s automobile will be a highly dependable and durable vehicle, requiring fewer repairs and less frequent servicing. Strong, light metals, such as magnesium and titanium, may perform increasingly important roles in engine and body construction.
“Visibility will be enhanced, probably by smaller structural supports and greater use of glass — although car glass may be tough enough to support the roof itself, and impregnated to filter out the burning rays of the sun. Stylists will attempt to lower the future automobile, imparting a longer, wider and faster look. Sliding car doors are a possibility. Electronic controls will be popular.”
The piece mentions some of the industries that would be expanded around the highway system to service all of the drivers participating in America’s favorite fossil fuel-based pastime. Writing from the futuristic vantage point of 1965, Frome continues:
Motorists now have a choice of fabulous stopping places. The newest accommodations have been built in two general types of locations: at service areas along the superhighways (which have grown up into attractive and complete communities) and at the outskirts of major cities. Certain of the urban centers, which had been thought to be doomed, have scored a surprising comeback as a result of striking new traffic developments such as depressed roadways and vast underground parking spaces. As a result, tourists are not repelled as once they were, but instead enjoy city sight-seeing.
The new overnight lodgings, built by large corporations at great expense, have combined features of the motel and hotel. The Sheraton chain, as you may recall, was one of the first major firms to enter this field, starting in 1955 with a $2,500,000 “highway inn” at Tarrytown, N.Y., followed by others at Binghamton, N.Y., Portland, Ore., and New Orleans, until it had completed a network of nearly 15 suburban hotels across the country.